How To Choose A College

This long article about affirmative action and its unintended effects is well-worth the read – but I’d like to pull out one particular result that holds for all students: if you want to major in hard science or go into academia, attend a school in which your test scores and high-school GPA places you in the top half (preferably top third) of the student body. Essentially, the point is this: if your hypothetical college student has the exact same grades once enrolled, going to Big-Name Top University instead of Podunk College will give the student a better chance at higher post-graduation salaries. But this is only true if the grades remain the same. In the real world, the students at BNTU have much higher average grades/test scores than the students at PC, and – here’s the kicker – the top students at PC are more likely than the bottom students at BNTU to achieve their dreams and/or higher-paying jobs. If you have a shot at getting into a Big Name selective university, but you know that you’re going to be skimming along getting C’s and D’s in those classes, you’re better off choosing a less-well-known school (without the name recognition) and getting A’s and B’s instead. Make the grading curve work for you, instead of against you. This is especially important if you can’t afford to pay the high tuition at BNTU without taking out a lot of loans – if you end up switching to an easier major, you’re likely to land yourself in a lot of debt without any good prospects of high-paying employment. The other side of this coin is that if you choose a college where you’ll be in the top third of the student body academically, they’re much more likely to “sweeten the deal” by offering you grants and scholarships to attend. (In my case, this was so much so that the net tuition difference between the small private college I attended and the state university was only $1000/semester higher, if I recall correctly. “On paper” it was a $10,000-ish difference between their tuition plus room and board. I got a ninety-percent discount for choosing the smaller, less-well-known school.)

So, when you’re looking at colleges, widen your net to include smaller schools, not just the biggest names you might barely be able to squeeze into – just make sure they have decent-sized departments in your desired field. I waffled back and forth on my major for a couple years before choosing to go into Computer Science and then the head of the CompSci department quit the summer before my senior year, so the college I attended was actually an academic mismatch for me on the small side. (It had other perks to make up for that!)


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